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Shadows in Kyoto Review

Quick Look: Shadows in Kyoto

Designer: Wei-Min Ling
Artist: Maisherly Chan
Publisher: Deep Water Games
Year Published: 2018
No. of Players: 2
Ages: 10+
Playing Time: 15-30 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com


tl;dr: Fast, Stratego-like gameplay, upgraded with player powers and Maisherly Chan art. 'Nuff said.

Getting to the Game: Setup is quick, but very important. After choosing who will start as the Oniwaban and who will play as the Government, each player shuffles their respective location and tactic decks and takes 4 and 2 cards, respectively. Then, each player will place all six of their agents at the back edge of their board in any order they wish, sticker side facing themselves. One agent will be placed in the second row in the middle. For your first game, it's suggested that you don't use the included Equipment or Charisma cards. 

If you ever played Stratego as a kid, then you know how to play Shadows in Kyoto. Surprisingly, many of the players I played this with had not. Play alternates between the Oniwaban and the Government. On your turn, you will play a single card from your hand and perform its action. Location cards move your agents ever forward to that colored space. Tactics cards allow you to move sideways, backwards, swap places with another of your agents, or delay movement until an opponent moves into a space. Once you've managed to advance one of your agents with a red dot (actual intelligence vs. the no-dotted "false" intelligence) to the opponent's back row, or capture your opponent's red-dotted agents (meaning that they can no longer win), you win. Intrigued? Oh, you have no idea...

Playing the Game: There are so many improvements on the hidden-agent, piece-moving pedigree here that it's hard to choose where to start lauding this game, but laud it I shall! 

The mechanics are built around attacking. When you move one of your agents into a space occupied by an opponent's agent, ONLY the defending agent's numerical value is revealed. That means that, win or lose, the defender won't know for certain who attacked them unless they can logic-puzzle it out. If you attack with a "3" agent, and your opponent reveals a "2," then you remove their agent from the board and put it into your confinement area on your edge of the board. If you attacked with a "1," then you'd simply move your agent back to the space they came from. Now they know that it's either a 1 or a 0, but they can't be sure. Not only does this set up an absolutely wonderful tension, but it's also key to remember that numerical values are a wheel, not a continuum. If you attack with a 0 agent, and your opponent reveals a 3, YOU WIN THE ATTACK. Savage.

Introducing the charisma cards brings asymmetric play (squee!!) into the game. Each side has three unique player powers, such as drawing two cards instead of one to replenish your hand and choosing the one you want (Tomoyo), returning a played non-wild Location card back to your hand instead of discarding (Ayane), or breaking the hidden-attacker rule and forcing attackers to reveal their value as well (Iroha). The Government player can choose one of their three provided options, or they can choose the neutral Ruri. If they decline to use Ruri, then the Oniwaban player can choose the ability to select any non-wild location card to add to her hand, preventing your opponent from entering any of those locations while an agent of yours occupies it. Also included are Equipment cards, which give you one-shot abilities (also asymmetrically divided by side) that only activate once an agent from your side is captured. These, along with the player powers, force radical changes to gameplay in a game already fairly simple, which is absolutely stellar.


Finally, my favorite rule-that-seems-subtle-but-changes-the-entire-game: an alternate win condition. I apologize, dear reader, that I lied to you above. Getting one of your agents to the opponent's back line, is indeed one way to win this game. However, there's an alternate way to win, and here's where things get oh so very crazy - If your opponent captures three of your non-dotted agents, you win. Now we've gone from ]a full-on blood bath where you capture at all costs, to a serious game of chess. If you failed on your first two attempts to capture actual intelligence from your opponent, you're one wrong choice away from losing the entire game now. Capture one red dot and two non-dotted? Now things get real. The first capture of the game is fun, and information is traded back and forth, but with every successive capture, the table banter turns from lighthearted to desperate. You're reading your opponent's body language every time you reach for a piece. I literally watched one of my friend's irises get wide when I moved a piece towards theirs, and then changed my mind. It's crazy how this game turns on a dime, and it does it with such a small footprint. 

Artwork and Components: The artwork is done by Maisherly Chan, so we're already at a very high bar. Attention has been paid to everything here. The board art for each location is different for each color, and it's all done in delicate ink strokes. The Charisma cards look way better in real life than my Samsung Galaxy S7 can show you. The box art and cards really pop with color and bring a great look to a game that's already outstanding to play. 

As for the components, the wooden pieces are represented as geishas. Now, cultural references notwithstanding, the game makes you peel the number stickers off a sheet and apply them yourself. I get that this is a cost-saving measure as opposed to having them printed, but it feels cheap. The stickers are shaped with the outline of the piece, meaning that if you miss a little, that piece is going to have a tiny sliver of sticker hanging off it. Probably not enough to identify the piece to another player, but enough to drive me crazy. Yes, I could peel it off and try to re-stick it, but that just means it's not going to stick as well, and if the sticker falls off, what do I do then?

Also, speaking of identifying pieces to the other player, here's how my wooden pieces came out of the sealed box:

Two of my Government agents are broken in identifying ways, and one of my Oniwaban pieces is similarly marked. I can't fix these. I could ask Deep Water for replacements, but if this happened in a sealed box, it's probably only a matter of time before it happens again. The obvious solution is to grind off all these hairpins until they're all uniformly broken. That feels super bad, though, and it makes me sad. Perhaps not as sad as not being able to play this great game because I'll always know which two agents I shouldn't bother with, but still pretty sad.

The Good: Quick, tense gameplay. Top-shelf art. Strategy finds different levels each time I play.

The Bad: Agent pieces prone to breaking, which ruins the game completely. Geisha theme is a little dicey. Only 2 players.

Score: I loved this game, and it will see play for a long while (at least, when I get it back from one of my play group members who couldn't wait to borrow it). It's fast, quite thematic, and overall a really exciting game in a small box. I'm giving Shadows in Kyoto a score of A Bright Light.

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About the Author:

Nicholas Leeman has been a board game evangelist for over 10 years now, converting friends and family alike to the hobby. He's also a trained actor and works summers as one of the PA announcers for the St. Paul Saints, a professional baseball team. He lives in Minneapolis, MN with his board gaming wife and son.
Shadows in Kyoto Review Shadows in Kyoto Review Reviewed by The Madjai on August 13, 2018 Rating: 5

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